The Africans brought it and the French Creole championed it as a culinary staple. While okra — a member of the mallow family, along with hibiscus and cotton — is praised for its taste and thickening qualities in soups and stews, many people refuse to eat it. Why? For the same reasons this harmless pod is used to thicken soups and stews like gumbo. Okra can make for a slimy mess on the palate if prepared improperly.
Why is okra so slimy?
When I was a kid, I remember a particularly interesting houseplant that my mother always kept in the bright, sunny corner of the laundry room. Its spiky leaves were fascinating, but I had no idea what it was. What I did know, however, was that ripping off the leaves released a slimy, gooey substance that served as a soothing treatment for sunburn, according to my mother.
The plant to which I am referring is, as you may have guessed, the aloe vera plant. The same clear goop that flows through its leaves, known as mucilage, is also found in okra pods. Made of sugar residues called exopolysacharrides and proteins called glycoproteins, mucilage’s viscosity increases when heat is applied. This is good for thickening dishes, but bad if you’re trying to saute sliced okra as a side.
What’s the right way to cook with okra?
A foolproof technique for avoiding the slime when cooking with okra is to use it for what it’s good at: thickening. Add it to any good soup or gumbo for more body and delicious crunch. Another best practice when preparing okra is to make nice with the deep-fryer. Since heat further activates the thickening of mucilage, batter and quick-fry chopped pods to a golden brown for a crunchy and slime-free (well, almost slime-free) appetizer or snack.
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